ASIA 740: Chinese Civilization: A Conceptual History
This seminar will look at how terms for various concepts of ‘civilization’ in different languages (e.g., Old Chinese, Modern Mandarin, English, Japanese) and different historical periods have been used to refer to what is now China as a “civilization.” Since the English word civilization (and its avatars in French, German, etc.) continues to be used to, in the words of Norbert Elias, “express the self-consciousness of the West,” it is not a neutral term which can be used unproblematically as an analytical category in the study of other “civilizations.” In this seminar students will explore to what extent is it then still possible to talk about the emergence of “civilizational consciousness” in ancient China. Students will also explore how Western concepts of ‘civilization’ (rendered in Modern Chinese and Japanese as wénmíng and bunmei, respectively) from political science, anthropology, and archaeology have been appropriated by Chinese and Japanese scholars from the nineteenth century to the present day. Ths widespread process of “translating the West” and appropriating Western terms and concepts (such as ‘civilization’) is perhaps one of the most insidious legacies of colonialism and Orientalism. While largely abandoned by western anthropologists, the concept of ‘civilization’ still plays a central role in the writings of Chinese archaeologists. The notion that “Chinese civilization” is five thousand years old is also politically attractive to the political leaders of China in the 21st century since allows them to construct a new, post-Mao, concept of Chinese national identity rooted in remote antiquity.